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Native Hawaiians Continue Protest a Week After Telescope Construction Was Set to Start on Sacred Land

Indigenous protectors of Mauna Kea oppose the $1.4 billion project

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Protests led by Native Hawaiians have blocked the construction of a telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea on Big Island. (Photo: Actions for Mauna Kea/Facebook)

A week after construction was scheduled to resume on a long-delayed $1.4 billion telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea—a dormant volcano on Hawaii's Big Island—thousands of Native Hawaiians who consider the mountain sacred continued to protest the planned observatory.

"There are Native people everywhere around the world standing for their mountaintops, for their waters, for their land bases, their oceans and their life ways. We are no different than them."
—Pua Case, Indigenous organizer
Explaining that the 13,796-foot mountain is considered home to Native Hawaiian deities, Kaho'okahi Kanuha—a leader of the kia'i, or protectors, who have set up camp on the mountain—told CNN Sunday that "it is without a doubt one of our most sacred places in all of Hawaii."

Kanuha said that Mauna Kea—considered by astronomers one of the best places in the world to observe the skies—already has been "desecrated" by 13 observatories and with the ongoing Indigenous-led movement against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), "This is our last stand."

"We are taking a stand not only to protect our mauna and aina—our land—who we have a genealogical connection to," Kanuha explained. "We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this, there is not very much we can fight for or protect."

Pua Case, an Indigenous organizer and one of the Mauna Kea protectors, appeared on Democracy Now! Monday to discuss why thousands of Native Hawaiians and other critics of the project are protesting.

"For the last 10 years, we have held off the project of the building of an 18-story telescope on the top of our mountain, near the summit, on a pristine area called the northern plateau, over our water aquifer and the source of water for much of this island," said Case.

"We are making a stand as not just Native people and not just the local community, but really a worldwide community, because there are so many similarities," she added. "There are Native people everywhere around the world standing for their mountaintops, for their waters, for their land bases, their oceans, and their life ways. We are no different than them."

A project of the TMT International Observatory—a partnership between University of California and the California Institute of Technology, as well as institutions in Canada, China, India, and Japan—the controversial telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere.

The protests against the telescope were triggered by Democratic Gov. David Ige's announcement on July 10 that an access road would be closed to transport equipment up the mountain.

Last Wednesday, after police in riot gear failed to clear protectors from the access road despite arresting 33 kupuna—elders—and one caregiver, Ige issued an emergency proclamation that expanded law enforcement's power to close off parts of the mountain and manage protests.

On the mountain Sunday, activists "scheduled a variety of workshops and training sessions throughout the day," according to Honolulu's Star-Advertiser. "Some of those workshops were aimed at sharing Hawaiian culture, although others were meant for practicing 'nonviolent direct action' in the event that law officers showed up."

Ige raised concerns by sending some members of the National Guard to the mountain last week, but the governor has insisted they are focused on transportation and duties other than managing protests and that, as of Friday, he does not plan to call in any more troops.

The demonstrations haven't been contained to the mountain or the Big Island. On Oahu, KHON 2 reported, about 2,000 people "marched two miles on Sunday from Fort DeRussy to the Honolulu zoo" to protest the telescope.

Solidarity actions have also popped up around the country, and as of press time, a Change.org petition demanding "the immediate halt to the construction of the TMT" was fewer than 1,000 signatures away from reaching its goal of 150,000. 

An open letter that has been signed by astronomers doesn't explicitly denounce the project, but calls into question how the government and the partnership behind the telescope have handled opposition.

However, the letter does "call upon the astronomy community to recognize the broader historical context of this conflict, and to denounce the criminalization of the protectors on Mauna Kea" as well as "urge the TMT Collaboration and the government of Hawaii to desist from further arresting or charging protectors, and to remove military and law enforcement personnel from the summit."

On Monday morning, Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green became the highest ranking public official in the state to visit the mountain amid the protests. He told reporters, "I came here today to listen and to respect people."

"I'm here to make sure people are OK," said Green, a physician who arrived at Mauna Kea after an emergency room shift. "I'm not here for a political statement."

Green's visit came after Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim went to the access road over the weekend. Kim told a crowd there that "we all see different things, but I'll tell you how I feel: For the first time in my 80 years of life, I see a group of people finally coming together to feel proud of being who you are, because you are the most beautiful, warmest, givingest people on God's Earth."

Despite the local opposition, TMT International Observatory spokesperson Scott Ishikawa told Hawaii News Now on Sunday that "Mauna Kea continues to be the preferred site for TMT."

The third paragragh of this post has been updated to clarify that there are 13 observatories on Mauna Kea.

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